Engineering Emojis: How to Improve Communication During Software Development

Emojis aren’t just for texting anymore — the lighthearted avatars are just one way engineering teams can humanize their communication habits.
Written by Jenny Lyons-Cunha
June 7, 2022Updated: June 7, 2022

Within their 30-by-30 pixel frame, emojis can pack an outsized emotional punch. From dubious side eyes to cheeky fruit, the tiny avatars provide rich nonverbal cues when peppered in texts, emails, Zoom chats and other text-driven online communication. 

“Emojis are essentially a form of visual paralanguage,” noted a recent Frontiers in Psychology study. “They are used as a cue to convey meaning and enhance the clarity of text.” 

For engineering teams, the expressive symbols are a dynamic way to elevate their communication methods. The technical nature of their work can leave little room for quirky, imaginative language — that’s where emojis come in.    

“We constantly use emojis in our Zoom chat: It’s a great way to understand our tool’s abilities and features,” said Deepan Prabhu Babu, senior software engineer at Zoom Video Communications. “We often request a code review and make it light using a meme or emoji.”

As emojis evolve to reflect the humans that use them — with more diverse skin tones and happy families of all configurations — their value becomes clearer: The unassuming digital trinkets are just one of many ways that engineers can better understand one another. 

“When there is constructive dialogue within a team, they are more likely to stay rather than seek another job, there is a more even distribution of knowledge and problems get solved more quickly,” said Alteryx Senior Software Engineering Manager Tom Lee on the importance of comfortable discourse among colleagues. 

Whether by way of emoji-driven nuance, strong listening skills, transparency from management, direct discourse or staying anchored in the present moment, clear communication skills are key to healthy dialogue between engineering cohorts. This was evident when Built In sat down with five engineering leaders to discuss their tips for fostering robust communication among their teams. 

The bottom line?

Great communication between engineers starts with clarity — and maybe a starry-eyed emoji or two.  

 

Deepan Prabhu Babu
Senior Software Engineer

 

Zoom Video Communications is an information technology company that aims to make video communications frictionless and secure.

 

What’s one key communication habit you’ve encouraged among your team? 

Being actively available, responding to messages and using emojis. These practices make it easier to understand conversations remotely. For example, we might request a code review and make it light and fun, using a meme and emoji!

 

What effect has it had on the team culture?

Being attentive shows presence, contribution towards our culture of care and encourages frequent communication to happen professionally — in a fun way. It serves as documentation and is easy to find in the search bar. 

 

What advice do you have for other engineering managers who are looking to create healthy communication habits?

Encourage your team members to share and communicate their contributions, including design documents, code reviews and open source projects. Always add any relevant reference manuals or code sources.

 

 

Kristen Bevans
Director of Engineering

 

Workiva is a cloud company that provides a connected reporting and compliance platform.  

 

What’s one key communication habit you’ve developed among your team? 

After sitting in too many meetings in which I wasn’t a key contributor, I’ve learned to honor the gift of people’s time by being present, prepared and precise in all communication. 

In order to be present, I’m learning to listen with intention. I want my team to see that I’m genuinely engaged in the discussion — even if that means acknowledging a message and letting them know when I can get back to them.  

Being prepared often means more than having an agenda: It can also mean being aware of the right format for the conversation. Can this topic be shared asynchronously, or does this require collaboration through discussion? Understanding where we may need some kind of visual diagram to guide the conversation can help our teams move forward.

Being precise can look like being very clear where you need a decision, thoughtful editing of written communications like emails and timely feedback.

I’ve learned to honor the gift of people’s time by being present, prepared and precise in all communication.”

 

What effect has it had on the team culture?

Respectful communication is a key part of building trust: one of our core values at Workiva. We start building that foundation of trust with our new hires on day one by blocking time to help them understand our systems and thoughtfully introducing them to colleagues so they can broaden their network. 

Being respectful with communication can also mean recognizing when a face-to-face or video call might be more productive than messaging to avoid misinterpreting someone’s intent or tone. 

When we put thought into how we can best engage with each other, we build trust, and that is one way that we live our company values every day.

 

What advice do you have for other engineering managers who are looking to create healthy communication habits?

I would encourage every leader to listen with curiosity and develop a habit of asking questions. There are many different ways to ask questions, but leading by example and creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable to ask goes a long way in supporting a team. 

 

GETTING THE CONVERSATION STARTED

  • Day-to-day problem solving questions can be energizing and produce positive changes.
  • Creatively using polls and votes can vary the format and structure.
  • Open-ended questions are great for strategic problem solving and focus..
  • Trust-building questions like “What concerns you most about this issue?” create positive improvements in our relationships.
  • Learning to ask questions, listen and be thoughtful about people’s time, can positively impact collaboration, trust and respect.

 

 

Alteryx colleagues having a team huddle in the office
Alteryx

 

Tom Lee
Sr. Software Engineering Manager

 

Alteryx is an artificial intelligence company that focuses on analytic process automation (APA).

 

What’s one key communication habit you’ve developed among your team?

Good communication is really about good listening. Instead of assuming you know what someone means, ask clarifying questions and restate the question before responding. When you do respond, asking another question is often a good idea.  

I use this technique in both one-on-ones and team meetings. It’s very helpful in group settings to make sure the entire team has the same base-level understanding, and it’s also helpful for the answer to come from the team rather than from me. If I give my answer, I close the conversation. 

By keeping the conversation open, I enable my teammates to contribute — creating better understanding about the problem we’re solving for.

Good communication is really about good listening.”

 

What effect has it had on the team culture?

I’ve seen this technique contribute to a lot more dialogue happening between team members, and, as a result, higher levels of collaboration and trust.  

This kind of teamwork has several advantages: When people feel like part of a collaborative team, they are more likely to stay rather than seek another job; there is a more even distribution of knowledge, which means less risk for the project if a team member becomes unable to work; and problems get solved more quickly when there is more dialogue.

There’s probably someone in the room who is afraid to ask a silly question, and you can model openness and vulnerability by being the one to ask it.”

 

What advice do you have for other engineering managers who are looking to create healthy communication habits?

Even when you know the answer, stay curious, take the time for a healthy dialogue and let the answers come from the team! When the solutions come from the team, they will be more likely to show ownership of those solutions. 

Also, sometimes it helps to ask the question no one is asking — even when you already know the answer. There’s probably someone in the room who is afraid to ask a silly question, and you can model openness and vulnerability by being the one to ask it.

 

 

Sasha Treviso
Director of Project Management

 

Suited Connector is a data solutions and martech platform.

 

What’s one key communication habit you’ve developed among your team? 

As a manager of new project managers, the most important skill I ask of my team is to practice direct communication. Working in a start-up environment, there are more unknowns in certain areas of our business — and that leaves a lot of room for assumptions. The first thing our engineers like to do is poke holes at the request, and they are very good at it! 

I ask my team to speak facts and not opinions. If we do not have a clear answer, I recommend they go back to product or business for further explanation.

Working in a start-up environment, there are more unknowns in certain areas of our business — and that leaves a lot of room for assumptions.”

 

What effect has it had on the team culture?

Direct communication allows for less speculation and more actionable items. We are in a fast-paced, revenue generating environment: Being clear only helps us move our projects along. It builds trust because you know the person you’re working with is clear about what they want.

 

What advice do you have for other engineering managers who are looking to create healthy communication habits?

I think we are caught up in the day to day of our jobs. So, taking a step back to get to know your team members’ interests is a great way to improve communication. You will see people smile and get excited about sharing about themselves. 

Additionally, I ask my team daily to stop and critically think. There are days where the requests come in, and we prioritize and move on to the next task — but sometimes we need to stop and assess these tasks. 

 

QUESTIONS FOR BETTER OUTCOMES

  • Can we automate?
  • Can we make something better?
  • Are there ideas that we can pull in to make the process, the project, better?
  • Can we ask better questions to help close the gap between stakeholders and tech?

 

 

 

Scholars is an HR tech company that helps companies scale personalized candidate experiences.

 

What’s one key communication habit you’ve developed among your team? 

Transparency. Regardless of the topic, I want to provide as much insight into my decision-making process as possible. 

My goal is to cultivate an environment where feedback is valued and each employee is comfortable asking questions. As a manager, I continually solicit feedback from my team during meetings, which has produced a collaborative atmosphere. Employees feel comfortable providing insights on their experience with the platform, which often positively impacts the product roadmap.

Regardless of the topic, I want to provide as much insight into my decision-making process as possible.”

 

What effect has it had on the team culture?

In an environment where everyone is tasked with learning new technologies at a fast pace, it is critical to develop a support system within your team. I think transparency is necessary to earn trust from your teammates — which builds the foundation of this support system.

 

What advice do you have for other engineering managers who are looking to create healthy communication habits?

Be open with your team and be willing to grow with them. While it is great to have structure and preferences, being open to change often opens doors and makes you and your employees more effective.

 

 

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